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Rethinking Anabaptist assumptions

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The first church that had to endure me as pastor was a gracious lot. I was 23 years old, idealistic, and sure my convictions were right. I had been raised in a Mennonite church, steeped like grandma’s canned cinnamon crab apples (don’t knock ‘em till you’ve tried ‘em!) in a particular brand of Anabaptism and unaware how much I had to unlearn.

In my first pastorate, one who taught me much was Mike, a World War II veteran. It was war that had brought him to Jesus. I’ll never forget the Sunday when horrendous feedback ripped through the sound system, and Mike hit the floor yelling, “What the hell!” It added a touch of authenticity to the morning’s worship! He was reliving Italy in 1944 where his life was saved, he later told me, when the voice of the Lord told him to break rank on a march. As he did, a mortar crashed where he had been, instantly killing a number of his comrades. War is hell, and feedback can take you there.

Mike challenged my thinking. He loved Jesus in a simple way, and hated what war had done to his generation, but couldn’t deny that it was vital in his own path to redemption. What’s a young preacher, so sure of the path of nonresistance, to do with such conflicting reports from the front?

This is just one example of how my assumptions have been challenged as I’ve served as a pastor. My memory of Mike, and being at his peaceful bedside as he drifted into the arms of Jesus, has often caused me to cast a critical light on my own convictions, particularly how I came to them. Is what I believe today in light of my experiences, relationships, and culture-shifts, still tested by Scripture, or is my theology simply assumed, second-hand God-thoughts?

Re-engaging assumptions

We may be at another important moment as a people of evangelical-Anabaptist confession. Might we be living off a theological memory (which must not be forgotten), while ignoring the challenges this day presents? For what it’s worth, allow me to throw out a few assumptions those Menno-shaped members of the family of God might do well to re-engage these days:

First, do our assumptions on peacemaking require a rethink? I once spoke at a Mennonite high school where I heard nothing but a political brand of pacifism defended by students regarding Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. I did not hear one theological or biblical reason for not using the sword to help girls have the chance to go to school in the face of blatant religious oppression. I heard politics (and second-hand politics at that), but not the politics of God’s kingdom. How much of our conviction of being a peacemaking people is more political than theological? Have we wrestled with Scripture on this lately, or only with pundits?

Second, have our assumptions that we are a Christ-obeying, counter-culture been wrong? Anabaptism originated from the courageous, Christ-absorbed faith of young idealists who risked everything because of a vision of another kingdom. They shaped a long culture of saints for whom “radical” was normal. As a youngster, I recall many young adults I admired entering a period of volunteer ministry service for the sake of the world because Jesus is Lord of it all. There they often met a spouse, and created servant homes founded on alternate priorities. Are we still impacting our world this way? If so, why are young adults increasingly absent from, disengaged from, and bored with our particular form of “radical?”

Third, we should never assume Anabaptism is an ethnic heritage. Anabaptism is a radical declaration of life surrendered to Jesus Christ. I have re-baptized several who identify themselves with Jesus in believer’s baptism despite their infant baptism. One young couple inspired me when they made this decision against their parent’s wishes, choosing to proclaim their own faith in Christ, not wanting to offend, but to challenge the tradition handed down to them. It was a poignant moment when they described themselves as true “Anabaptists.”

I am beginning to wonder if these “new” Anabaptists – and those of nationalities who have never spoken German – are really the future of our branch of God’s family tree. They see it’s all about Jesus. Might some of us have other assumptions?

Phil Wagler is interim lead pastor of Gracepoint Community Church in Surrey, B.C. He is Anabaptist by choice, even if by birth, and author of  Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church.
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